Crows

(This column was first published in the September 20, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    In that long litany of group names -- a pod of whales, a gaggle of geese, a murmuration of starlings, a pride of lions -- I find it significant that the list designates a murder of crows. I am not a crow enthusiast and I find the implication of that collective name satisfying. I am glad that the author did not choose, for example, the quite reasonable and entertaining but more neutral alternative, a caucus of crows.

    Frankly, I don't know how my vote against them would fare in a popularity contest for there are many people who like crows. There are, for example, two excellent websites devoted to them. Tay Tahk has posted her insightful observations of a crow family in her backyard and Cornell corvid researcher Kevin McGowan answers many questions about them. (Kevin has also argued against the New York crow hunting season that extends well into the time when crows are nesting.) There is even an American Society of Crows and Ravens, a rather strangely named group but perhaps understandable when its (presumably human) members call themselves corvies. At any rate crows do have their supporters.

    Admittedly, they are among our smartest and most sophisticated birds. Individual crows have definite personalities -- when it was legal to keep them, they often made delightful pets -- and their interactions with each other are playful and humorous. An interesting experiment demonstrates that they can count -- admittedly, however, only up to two. When two observers enter a blind and one leaves, the crows shy away, but when three enter and two leave, they approach without hesitation.

    Why then don't I like crows? I am not enthusiastic about nest robbers in general, but crows I assign to a special purgatory for having wiped out our local population of nighthawks.

    Nighthawks are those long-winged birds that formerly flew gracefully overhead catching insects attracted to the lights of night baseball games. (The hawk in their name is misleading for nighthawks are not raptors but are instead close cousins of whip-poor-wills.) Watching more closely, we could occasionally see nighthawks "booming." Booming is an acrobatic display flight in which they soar higher and higher then dive steeply, finally pulling up to make a roar with their wings. In any case nighthawks are now only seen here during migration and this year I missed them entirely.

    Both circumstantial and observational evidence suggests that the villain of the nighthawk demise is the crow. Nighthawks nest in the open on the gravel roofs of city buildings and when crows extended their range into urban areas about 25 years ago, they immediately sought out those nests to consume nighthawk eggs and young. I suspect that they and their jay cohorts represent a problem for other city dwelling birds as well, but the evidence is less clear about them.

    Only older observers realize that crows never ventured into urban areas until the 1970s. Why did they do so? Quite simply, because they are very intelligent birds. They may only be able to count up to two, but they quickly realized that they are now safer in cities than in the countryside. Most urban and suburban areas have passed laws against discharging firearms and the crow shoots I watched years ago along flight lines to their fall and winter roosts have been disbanded.

    Another factor -- as suggested in the movie "The Graduate" -- plastics, in this case those familiar trash bags that are even manufactured in the crow's favorite color. Crows in my neighborhood know the garbage collection schedule better than do local homeowners. A couple of pecks gains entrance to the dining room where a smorgasbord is spread before them.

    No matter what I think of them, I am certain that crows will win out. They are the ultimate survivors.-- Gerry Rising